The Vicious Cycle of Perfectionism
On the journey to financial freedom many of us experience a feeling of running on a hamster wheel. So much time and effort is being expended and yet we just keep going in circles, without any visible progress being made.
For most people true wealth building is a long-term game. Sure, a lucky few will design a product or business that takes off overnight. But for most of us, financial freedom will be a slow, arduous climb with such small change that it’s easy to feel like nothing is happening.
Part of this hamster wheel is an illusion. Your investment account may be small now but over time, regular investing is synergistic and so will pay off in the long run. However, another part of this feeling of being stuck may be based in reality. While there may be many factors at play, a common one is the vicious cycle of perfectionism.
The cycle of perfectionism works like this: a spark of inspiration hits and you feel super motivated. You pour tons of effort and time into working towards your goal. However, it isn’t long until you burn out and the motivation completely evaporates. You are left exhausted and depleted.
Then the goal is forgotten or neglected for so long that you start to feel guilty and angry at yourself. You avoid working on your project as a way to avoid dealing with those negative emotions. This continues until the next spark of inspiration hits and the cycle starts again. Left unchecked, this can go on and on, and create a sense of frustration and shame.
So, what initiates and maintains this often stressful and dysfunctional cycle? It starts with a goal that we want to reach. Then something motivates us to reach for the goal. However, the belief that we have to be perfect lurks in the back of our mind. We think that if things aren’t done to a certain standard then we have failed and that feeling of failing is too painful to tolerate.
Perhaps we can maintain “perfect” standards for a short time but ultimately the standard is too high and we become exhausted. Or other responsibilities come up that need to be attended to. Now, we have the sense of failure and guilt that we aren’t meeting the standard we have set for ourselves. So we start avoiding working on the goal to avoid the guilt and shame. After a period of time, we are rejuvenated and another spark of inspiration comes along to get us back to working towards that goal.
The question is, is perfectionism bad? Few things are simply black or white, good or bad. A better question is how effective is perfectionism for you? Is it causing unnecessary stress? It is causing you to be less productive than you are capable of? For most of us the answer to these questions is yes.
How do we break this cycle?
The way to counterbalance perfectionism is moderation. If the cycle of perfectionism is the pendulum swinging between the extremes of productivity and stagnation then moderation is the practice of staying away from the extremes. The practice of moderation is staying in the middle, not being so productive that you burn out but still maintaining movement forward.
How to practice moderation:
Set realistic goals: Setting lofty goals is counterproductive. If you set a goal that you can’t achieve then you are going to end up disappointed and unmotivated. Even setting a goal that will leave you drained is generally not worth it. Instead, set goals that are reasonable to achieve with the time, energy, and knowledge that you have to achieve them.
Develop a daily habit: Cramming before a test may have worked in school but it is not sustainable. You are more likely to maintain motivation and keep stress low if you develop a daily or weekly habit to work towards your goal in small, measured steps. Schedule this habit as you would an appointment and try to practice it at the same time of day. For example, work on your side hustle 30 minutes every morning or review your budget every Sunday evening.
Accept imperfection: You are not perfect. You are going to make mistakes, fall off the wagon, and experience setbacks. But so will everyone else. Continually remind yourself that you don’t need to be perfect. If you fall short of your goal or expectation, don’t beat yourself up about it. Take some time to acknowledge your own accomplishments, both big and small.